And now...a very special episode of Scryer's Gulch:
As Annabelle tied her bonnet laces, Lily hung around the front of the school room after class, beaming, hands clasped behind her back to contain her excitement. The other students filed out, the boys eager, but restraining themselves from shoving their female peers out of the way.
"Well now, Miss Lily," Annabelle said, and Lily giggled at the formality, "are you ready to visit your big brother's establishment?" Mr Bonham had elected to accept Annabelle's offer of refinement, doubtless in his continued misguided attempt to seduce her. Annabelle restrained her nose from twitching at the unpleasant thought.
"Yes, Miss Duniway," Lily piped, latching onto Annabelle's hand, and they skipped, laughing, out of the school. Once in the main street they slowed to a more sedate pace as befit young ladies, and Annabelle kept a surreptitious eye out for any unfriendly eyes, and Mamzelle's in particular. Misi was still out scouting, and she caught a flash of a familiar black tail around the corner of a porch. Lily had grabbed the arm where her little derringer was concealed against her wrist, but Annabelle thought they should be safe in public, especially with Jedediah Bonham's pride and joy as witness.
Since it was her first time in the LeFay, Annabelle had donned the hermatauxite bracelet, to see if anything other than Tony Bonham's pocket watch shared the contamination. He was there, waiting by the LeFay's grand entrance to welcome them at the appointed time.
"Good afternoon, Mr Bonham."
"Hi Tony!" Lily said, bouncing. Tony gave the girl a distracted, half-fond glance, but his eyes were mainly for Annabelle.
"It is so gracious of you to offer to teach our Lily the art of the piano," he said, ushering them in. "We have the finest instrument here at the LeFay. I've no doubt you'll be pleased."
Of course. You have no doubts about anything, thought Annabelle as they passed through the stylish lobby and into the dining hall. Though she did hope the piano was as good as he claimed.
The LeFay was all spun sugar and gilt, but managed to avoid the ostentation of the Bonham place. In that regard Anthony Bonham had outdone his father. The place had a calculated feel, though, from the elegant fall of drapes around the high paned windows, to the curve of the balustrade. There were a handful of guests scattered through the artfully made-up tables, taking their lunch.
The guests gazed on with benign interest as Tony led Lily and Annabelle to a velvet-cushioned piano bench, and gave a little bow. Annabelle thought returning a small curtsy could be taken as flirtation, and instead only nodded warmly.
"Thank you, Mr Bonham."
"Now Lily, do you know your notes?" Annabelle began as they sat, and started teaching her the C scale. As always Lily proved a fast learner, though her hands were a bit small for a keyboard this size. The instrument was indeed fine, dulcet toned, as they said, though Annabelle had seen finer in D.C. "Now let's try a chord. You put three notes together, see?"
Annabelle's fingers were beginning to itch, and she decided a small demonstration might motivate Lily even more. Or that's what she told herself.
"Now that we know the basic scale, and a few chords, I want to show you exactly what you can accomplish with so little." And with that, she let her fingers fly.
It was a deceptively simple piece, but it ran at the pace of a stampede, and Annabelle had always enjoyed it as a child. Her fingers pranced across ivory and ebony, filling the hall with spritely joy.
When she finished, the guests applauded with cultured enthusiasm, and Annabelle colored faintly. She was pleased her fingers remembered their deftness after so many months. In the corner of her eye she saw Sherriff Runnels leaning beside the door to the lobby, arms crossed over his chest. She didn't risk a glance at his face, lest she bring too much attention to any fondness between them, but she imagined his flinty good looks softening, the way they had when he had invited her to dinner. Annabelle blushed again at the thought.
Stop daydreaming, Annabelle, you've an art to teach and a crook to catch!
"Now," she said to Lily, "let's try that transition from C chord to E chord."
Annabelle's training leapt to the front even as she guided Lily's fingers to the keys when a sudden hushed ruckus of movement and protestation came from the lobby.
Glancing over as covertly as possible, Annabelle froze when she saw a be-gowned Mamzelle, being confronted by an apoplectic Tony Bonham.
"This is no place for you kind, demon." The last was a hiss that barely reached the piano, but Annabelle's trained ears picked it up with a shock. So Bonham junior knew about his father's pet demon. How many others knew?
"I care naught for you or what you wish, leetle boy."
"Now ma'am," said Sheriff Runnels. "I've no quarrel with you, but if Mr Bonham doesn't want you here, he's within his rights—"
But there was no time for speculation, because Mamzelle was striding toward the piano, an eerily graceful glide, and Annabelle saw the telltale warning of the ruby glint in her eyes.
"It ees time, Meez Annabelle Duniway. Time for you to die."
"Why Miss," Annabelle said, carefully rising from the velvet cushioned piano bench and pushing Lily behind her. "I'm sorry, I don't think I've seen you before," Schoolmarms, were, after all, not supposed to know about whorehouse madams. "but, I'm sorry to say, I have no idea what you're talking about. If you have a quarrel, perhaps we could—" Oh! How foolish I've been to think we would be safe in public! she thought, praying that her charge would remain safe.
"Do not play wit me, mon chéri. I know what you are. And now you die, and so will everyone in this miserable, hermatauxite-stinking ditch!"
An inhuman burst of speed was all the warning Annabelle had to release the derringer strapped to her wrist, and then she aimed, and fired.
Anything that wasn't an etheric gun wasn't fast enough to hit a demon at full speed, but the shot had the benefit of making Mamzelle dodge, which infinitesimally slowed her attack. Misi, wherever you are, I need you now!
The next move was so fast Annabelle didn't see it until Mamzelle's claws slashed through her poplin into her stomach, a blinding flare of pain.
"Oh," she whispered. Still, her trembling arm fought to raise the derringer for one last, point-blank shot…
Misi's exquisitely sensitive ears picked up the first hint of an argument between Mamzelle and the concierge. He pelted into the LeFay, dodging a forest of shocked human legs to where Annabelle lay crumpled on the floor, tossed like a rag doll, Mamzelle's clawed hand slick with blood.
"Annie, let me change— Please, by the Dark One's Wings, be conscious enough to order me—"
Back arched, Misi's fur stood on end as he hissed, backing toward Annie as Mamzelle approached.
"Help me," she whispered. "Change— Do what you have— Don't hurt anyone. Except Mamzelle…"
Misi leapt into the air as a bundle of crackling lightning, and when he landed he was a fur-clad man. Faster than any of the human onlookers to see, he launched himself at Mamzelle, at her beautiful ruby eyes and flashing fangs.
Please don't let me be too late, he begged.
Mamzelle parried Misi's first clawed swipe with ease, admiring his new, powerful form. She had never seen him as anything but a cat. There were possibilities with that form, so many bloody possibilities when they were both free…
Mamzelle jumped up onto one of the dining tables to avoid Misi's next deadly lunge, twisting the tablecloth askew and sending candles and chinaware clattering. She was beginning to grow annoyed, losing interest in their deadly dance.
"Why are you fighting me?" she demanded, taking an artful slash at his furry gut. "I free you! Together we will raze dis, dis canker of humanity from de face of de earth!"
"She's still alive," Misi growled, his half-cat, half-man face snarled in concentration. "I'm under orders."
But in that moment Misi himself could not have said whether orders compelled him, or his heart. And he was afraid of the answer.
John could feel the stab of Mamzelle's claws all the way to his heart, as if they had opened up his gut and poured out his life's blood, instead of Annabelle's. The thought of losing her, losing her again—
John found himself by Annabelle's side, not really remembering how he'd got there, ripping off his shirt to wad it against the terrible, gushing wound. To lose a wife, and now to lose… before they had even begun, they'd never had a chance…
"Miss Duni— Annabelle, Annie, now don't die on us. You're strong, the strongest woman I know—"
Damn fools at the Treasury, sending such a lovely young woman to this kind of intrigue. How could they!?
"Daniel…?" she moaned, angelic eyes clouding over, rolling toward him, and it was like he felt Mamzelle's clawed thrust all over again.
"Somebody go tell Doc Horridge to get his surgery ready!" he yelled over the din of the demon fight. Someone ran to obey, the entry bell jangling madly. Glass exploded, a shower of crashes and tinkles as the fight moved to the bar-top.
That cat, he thought as he gathered Annabelle into his arms as gently as he could. He'd never suspected the cat, a new tom, always poking around. It was another demon, had to be, or he'd never heard of a wercritter having a half-form. But what was it doing with Annabelle?
John had reached the hotel door, staying low and hopefully beneath Mamzelle's notice. The other demon was fending her off, giving them time. Tony Bonham appeared, face deathly pale, tie and watch fob askew, but collected as a man might be in these circumstances.
"Thank you for your assistance, Sherriff, but I will take Miss Duniway to the good doctor." He held out his arms peremptorily.
"Now is not the time for playing who can piss the farthest, Mr Bonham," John said, and maneuvered past him and through the door, into the light and dust of main street.
"Get Doc Horridge ready! Miss Duniway's hurt!" he yelled to a staring Mary Prake, who dashed off, clutching her apron.
John paused to check the bleeding. Annabelle's pretty poplin was soaked with red. He couldn't see the pulse in her throat.
John began to run, when he was jerked to a halt by a sudden, almost blinding brightness, three columns of white light fading to reveal three men, standing in the middle of the street.
What in tarnation—?
"I don't," said the man in the dusty gold tunic, his hair full of more pomade than John had ever seen on a man, "think, this is where we meant to go." He flipped open a small device, and spoke to it. "Enterprise, do you read? What are our current coordinates? Enterprise? Enterprise!"
The tallest of the mysterious strangers, in a powder blue tunic held out another device and began sweeping it around, which began beeping and flashing. Hermatauxite? John thought wildly.
"Beneath the surface there appears to lie a heavy concentration of a mineral compound that appears to be interfering with our communications and beaming technology, Captain. We should move out of the area at once, and reestablish contact with the Enterprise."
Beside him, a crag-faced man with piercing eyes strode up to John as he tried to run around them. He didn't know by what devilry the men had arrived, and he didn't care.
"Hold on, man. I see you have wounded," he said, grabbing John's elbow.
"She doesn't have time--" John rasped.
"I'm a doctor, man, not a pedestrian," he snapped. "Let me work." Together they eased Annabelle to the ground, and he began roving another of the small, bleeping devices over her body.
The tall stranger, a man with an eerily impassive face and severe eyebrows, and John realized with a certain amount of bewilderment, pointed ears, said, "Doctor, we are strangers on this world, and uninvolved in their affairs. We should not interfere."
"Why you cold-blooded, green-blooded, logical, pointy-eared—-She's a young woman for God's sake!"
"Please!" John begged, sending prayers to the Prophet and the Mother and anyone who would listen. He'd give himself to the Method, wail his Enthusiasm, anything, if only Annabelle would live. "You said you're a doctor? She needs help!"
"Can you help her, Bones?" the third man asked, warm brown eyes thick with concern as the man who claimed to be a doctor pressed a small cylinder against Annabelle's limp arm with a sharp hiss.
"I don't know, Jim, she's lost a lot of blood. I need to get her to sickbay, dammit!"
"Captain, if I remember my Earth history correctly, this appears to be the Western Frontier of the old United States, circa 1870," the man with pointed ears said. "But they appear to have adapted the use of the mineral interfering with our communications to fuel their technology. Perhaps a parallel dimension? Fascinating."
"Goddammit Spock, no one cares--" the strange doctor suddenly stilled, and looked up slowly, blue eyes filled with a resigned sorrow that made the pit fall out of John Runnel's stomach.
"She's dead, Jim."
...aaaaand check the date! Thanks to M.E. Traylor for writing this leg in the weblit round robin we've got going today, and be sure to check out M.E.'s webserial "Guts and Sass." Oh, what did *I* write for the round robin? I'll give you a hint: It's set in my home town... Yes, I got to maul my RL friend Kip Manley's excellent City of Roses, one of my favorite online serials! I was thrilled and honored. Seriously, you could hear me squee all the way in Beaverton.
Thanks to Wysteria for putting this whole round robin together, and be sure to check her out as well; Tapestry is another of my faves.
New: Here's the master list of all the April Fools stories. Thanks for playing!